Category Archives: Essay

Lists of Discovery

Do cars stop for you at intersections? Can you tell when a papaya will ripen? Is Heineken your beer of choice?  These question may seem innocuous but to Nhu Tien Lu, they were huge discoveries about Vietnam.  Read on and learn the varied nuances of Vietnamese life through Nhu Tien Lu’s senses as she has many of her assumptions erased after spending some time in the country.  

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The most wondrous aspects of living in another country are those learning moments when you realize that things that you just assumed to always exist, unspoken cultural rules that you thought were natural and constant, are in fact neither natural nor constant. So this is my list of several of the common assumptions I had, having been raised in America, that no longer apply to my everyday life in Saigon:

  1. That vehicles will stop, or attempt to stop, for pedestrians, particularly if you’re in a crosswalk.
  2. That there will be a crosswalk.
  3. That if you walk on the sidewalk, you will not have to step aside for motorcycles to pass.
  4. That motorcycles will carry a maximum of two people, and not be used to move furniture, livestock, and other unwieldy objects of great mass.
  5. That buses will come to a complete stop to let you board.
  6. That restaurants will provide paper napkins, and won’t charge you for them.
  7. That prices on basic goods will not rise simply because New Year’s is a month away.
  8. That a dollar bill is worth a full dollar regardless of whether it is new or old looking.
  9. That prices quoted will not vary depending on whether or not you look like you know how much the prices should be.
  10. That people will rely on banks to deposit money instead of finding hiding places for gold.

However, it should be noted that the City, or thành phố, has its own quirks and rhythms as compared to the countryside, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned after  visiting my parents’ quê hương in Vĩnh Long and Quảng Ngãi these past couple of  weeks:

  1. That people can be most easily located by going to the neighborhood where they lived 30 years ago and asking for them by name.
  2. That no one moves, ever.
  3. That street names and addresses are never used to give directions.
  4. That rivers are a viable means of traveling from house to house.
  5. That most everyone has an orchard and a river running through their land behind their house, even if they cannot yet afford a squat toilet or a roof made of something more permanent than coconut leaves.
  6. That everything that I would normally consider to be garbage can be either repaired, re-used, or fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and dogs in the backyard.
  7. That there are more than just two or three types of coconuts, mangos, durians and pomelos. Many, many more.
  8. That most people can tell, as casual knowledge, when a papaya will ripen, how  to pluck a duck, and if a mai tree will bloom in time for Tết.
  9. That there are more Vietnamese words for “rice” than I may ever be able to learn.
  10. That your parents, upon coming back to where they were born and raised after 30 years away, won’t ever look quite the same to you.

And lastly, on the flip side, there have also been behaviors and assumptions that I’ve never questioned as a part of my Vietnamese culture and upbringing, so the following is a list of the most common things that I take for granted in Việt Nam, but which I understand may come as a surprise to foreign visitors:

  1. That in the Vietnamese language, “you” and “I” cannot be said without knowing how old the person is in relation to you or what your familial relationship is. This is the reason you will be asked, within the first minute of speaking to someone, how old you are. If you are not asked, it’s because they already know.
  2. Additionally, “hello” and “thank you” and any other address to another person requires the use of “you” and hence the knowledge of how old they are in relation to you or what your familial relationship is.
  3. That the question, “When’s your birthday?” is actually asking for your birth year and answered by giving your zodiac animal.
  4. That Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that any slight inflection up, down, up and down, or down and up will mean the phrase Cai nay la bao nhieu could translate to “How much is this?” or “Jailkeeper, now shout ‘bag’ a lot!” Seriously.
  5. That you will be asked, by friends and strangers alike, how much money you make and how much you pay for rent, expenses, and that shirt you just bought. Likewise, you are expected to ask the same of others, which is how you will learn what fair prices are for meals, clothes, groceries, rent, and that shirt you just bought. (Essential when dealing with #9 from List 1.)
  6. That people you’ve just met will say, with great affection and frankness, “You are too fat (or skinny or short or dark-skinned).”
  7. That Heineken is the beer brand of choice for the Vietnamese communities in both Vietnam and the U.S.
  8. That politeness includes taking your shoes off at the door, offering tea with two hands, and waiting for the oldest adult to begin eating before you do.
  9. That families will reunite each year in recognition of the anniversary of their deceased grandparents, but will not celebrate birthdays.
  10. That you will honor your ancestors, and through them, your roots, by an offering of food and drinks. You will call them home on a waft of incense smoke, and it will taste both familiar and strange, and in this way, you will know you’re also coming home.

— Nhu Tien Lu

Nhu Tien Lu earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz. Born into the year of the roaming horse, she has lived in 3 countries and 6 states thus far, and has worked in the fields of domestic violence, racial justice, and human trafficking. She likes to call herself a writer and social justice activist, but doesn’t really believe it yet. She is inspired by those who keep their hearts in their mouths, by her truly activist and artistic colleagues, and by writers who write through the darkness.

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Poor Richard’s Rise

Linh Dinh argues that it’s time for the United States to be a real democracy again and not a warmongering global superpower. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world.

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Linh Dinh

July 4th, I wandered down to Independence Hall. There were soldiers in dress and battle uniforms, a high school marching band, many beefy bikers and a handful of svelte beauty queens, including Miss America, Teresa Scanlan. In front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, more than thirty Falun Dafa drummers, all female, performed a measured dance. Nearby, Sri Chinmoy followers sat under a portrait of their God stand-in, with these words emblazoned on their float:

America, America, America!
Great you are, good you are,
Brave you are, kind you are.
O my America, America,
Your Heaven-Freedom
Is earth’s aspiration-choice.
With you, in you
Is God-Hour’s Victory-Voice 

I saw a fake, many gunned Navy ship and, in front of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a real armored personnel carrier. Over a gorgeous transom, a marble Ben Franklin stood, draped in a toga, but no one gave this eminently sensible man a gander. Native or foreign, everyone was more interested in climbing inside the ass kicking killer transporter for a souvenir photo.

Armored Personnel Carrier

Seen often these days in civilian contexts, on streets, in ballparks and malls, soldiers and military hardware are there to remind us that we are in many wars at once, or, rather, we’re in one open-ended, bankrupting yet somehow necessary mother-of-all-wars, because the enemy is always near. That terrorist could be standing next to you, or maybe he’s you, buddy! That’s why the government must shove its hands into your hair and down your panties, brief or Depend adult diaper. Got a problem with that? Tough shit.

Half a block away, I ran into another Ben Franklin. Standing next to a faux Betsy Ross, this impersonator was being interviewed by a television crew. In an increasingly fake America, where even wood pulp has become an ingredient in pancakes, muffins, salad dressings and fish filets, it’s appropriate that an imposter should dish up mcnuggets of jive wisdom to an audience of post literates.

Ben Franklin being interviewed

What would the real Franklin make of our horrible mess? You can’t say he didn’t warn us. Poor Richard, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.” Since over half of our tax revenues goes to service wars past and present, America is worse than broke. Unable to pay her bills or maintain basic infrastructures, she’s leasing her freeways and parking meters to foreigners.

She may even invite China to build a 50-square-mile “technology zone” in Idaho. As Lt. Gov. Brad Little explains, “Idaho’s the last state that should say we don’t want to do business with Asia. Asia’s where the money is.” According to the Idaho Statesman, this complex will be a “fully contained city with all services included,” and the Chinese are attracted by Idaho’s “low cost for doing business,” and “because of the lack of infrastructure here, which means it has more opportunity.” You read that right, an American state is now pitching itself as underdeveloped, cheap and ready for foreign capital and expertise. By selling us everything, including pre-infected, spy ready computers, China has so many of our depreciating dollars, it might as well buy itself a private Idaho. Of course, this will be spun as a great opportunity. As Indigent Dick already warned, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”

As I write this, Obama and the Republicans are still haggling over whether to tax our wealthiest just a tad more, or to starve and shortchange the rest of us even worse, but what’s not being discussed is America’s monstrous war budget, though this is the main cause of our national bankruptcy, actual and moral. Since endless war fattens our richest, America will continue to commit mass murders on a vast scale, even as she destroys herself in the process.

Americans are planning two mass protests in Washington DC against the military industrial complex. One, Seize DC, will start on September 11th, and the other, organized by, will start on October 6th, the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike all recent American protests, which tend to be no more than sign waving parades lasting but a few hours, weather permitting, these two protests are meant to go on until the authorities yield to their demands. As articulates, “We will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation.”

A precedent comes to mind. In 1932, destitute World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington to demand an early payment, roughly $1,000 per soldier, of a promised bonus. Estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 people, they lived in abandoned buildings, tents and shacks for nearly three months until routed by federal troops. Four marchers were killed and over 1,000 injured. Though these Americans had no radical aims, though they didn’t seek to change or even upset the system, their government responded to their pitiful plea with deadly violence. Four years later, however, the veterans’ demand was met after a similar protest.

A more radical protest was mounted the Poor People Campaign in 1968. According to Marion Wright Edelman, it was Robert Kennedy who had come up with the idea, “I had been working with Robert Kennedy on poverty in Mississippi, and he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. To make them visible.” Though King organized it, he never saw it to fruition, for he was assassinated a month before Resurrection City was erected in early May on the Washington Mall. On June 5th, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, then on June 24th, federal bulldozers wiped out this encampment of 5,000 people. Mission accomplished! Who says the United States is not decisive when it comes to dealing with “trouble makers”?

With an “economic bill of rights,” these protestors’ central demand was a $30-billion anti-poverty program. Like many Americans of today, they simply wanted less money for death, more for life, but of course, such a silly sentiment from a pack of nobodies could not be taken seriously by the Washington masters of wars.

Washington DC makes absolutely nothing yet eats up everything. With its career politicians, lawyers and lobbyists lurking in every corner, Washington DC has to be, by far, the biggest magnet for crooks, bullies, asskissers and shameless liars in the entire country. Wouldn’t it be perfect if Washington was granted not state but nationhood, so it could be independent from the rest of us? Imagine your life without Bush, Cheney, Rice, Obama, Pelosi and Clinton, etc, inside your wallet, head and pants, and on you back constantly! Elections would not be so pointless as they are now, for Americans could exile their very worst to that squarish lump of land inside the Beltway! Washington DC, where America purges.

Minus that fantasy, our future is indeed grim. Washington DC will likely ignore the upcoming protestors until they voluntarily disperse, but if enough Americans show up and stay to become an eyesore and a nuisance to business as usual, cops and soldiers will come to evict them, without any concessions made whatsoever, but what are these protestors’ demands, exactly? Would they be satisfied if Washington promised to withdraw all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, or are they demanding more, much more? (I’m evoking the promise, not the actual withdrawal, which would take months.) And what does it mean to say that protestors will occupy Freedom Plaza “until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation”? Would the pledge of such a shift be enough to disperse them, or will these protestors stay until actual laws—which, and how many, exactly?—are signed? Compared to the Poor People Campaign, the aims of these upcoming protests are not as clearly articulated, not yet anyway, but perhaps these will come into better focus, soon.

But asking the right questions is still much easier than getting any answers, even wrong ones. We will be reminded, yet again, that the moneyed interest won’t yield us an inch without a savage struggle. They have all the funds and guns. We have our disunity.

For a glimmer of hope, one can perhaps look to Thailand. After seeing their elected leader ousted and their political parties repeatedly banned, the red shirts staged protest after protest and suffered many casualties, nearly a hundred dead in 2010 alone. That year, at least 25,000 of them occupied Bangkok’s central shopping district for six weeks, until the Army came and blasted them away, but before fleeing, they exacted revenge by burning Asia’s biggest shopping center and the stock exchange. Persisting, these red shirts finally gained victory when their candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, became elected as prime minister.

The red shirts became a force because they dared to disrupt the normalcy of a very corrupt and vicious system. Americans will undoubtedly have to do the same. The stakes and risks are already high.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption

Linh Dinh doesn’t think the USA is the greatest country on Earth. Here he lays out a powerful critique of American corruption. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world, so we’re delighted to have a chance to repost his work here. 

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Linh Dinh

“The United States has been a leader in the multinational effort to end bribery and corruption in international business practices.”
–Website of The U.S. State Department

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why shouldn’t the United States be the most corrupt (and corrupting) country on earth? We’re number one! In America, each politician can be bought and absurd sums of money are routinely misallocated or missing altogether, with nary a peep from the complicit media. On the foreign front, America’s modus operandi is to bribe every dictator, and the ones she can’t bribe, she’ll undermine, overthrow or bomb back to Jesus. In exchange for this bribe, which can be disguised as loans or “foreign assistance,” said dictator will allow America to loot his country in perpetuity. If you don’t believe me, just strip any tinpot dictator and you’ll surely find “CIA” tattooed on one ass cheek, with a (pretty good) portrait of a recent U.S. president embossed on the other. Lovers always leave a mark, they often say. Sometimes it’s not a dictator, per se, but a dominant party that’s America’s hushed puppy. In any case, rapacious trade deals and unpayable loans are the bane of countless client states orbiting Washington.

Domestically, American corruption has been institutionalized as campaign contributions and lobbying, but that’s only the open, legal part. Perhaps these practices are allowed to trick us into thinking that American corruption only goes so far, but who really knows what goes on in the labyrinthine backrooms, basements and dungeons of Washington? In any case, us lumpen Americans are “represented” by millionaire politicians who are lint deep in the pockets of the fattest banks and corporations. The American politician is thoroughly corrupt, often from grassroots level, but the degree of venality and sanctimonious hypocrisy increase as he approaches Washington DC, that beautiful cesspool of martial madness.

No candidate who’s not heavily pro big business, overtly or covertly, can have any chance of being elected to national office. He won’t be funded, nor will he be seen on television. It’s not a democracy when all candidates are vetted beforehand, and only millionaires can be chosen by other millionaires and billionaires. In this setup, the average citizen doesn’t matter, as his vote or canvassing for a favorite are only charades designed to make him feel good and involved, as if his opinions and advocacy matter, but whatever he does, it won’t prevent the election of yet another tool who’s corrupt, pro war and pro big business, at the expense of all else. But don’t despair, all you earnest partisans, for even when your candidate does lose, the other guy, one who’s hardly different than your favorite man, wins! Those who voted for McCain, for example, got pretty much all of his policies through Obama, so it’s a win, win, lose, lose situation, see? Emblematic of this farce is the fact that American tax payers are even asked to contribute three bucks a year to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Though stuffed with cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Raytheon, etc., our candidates still panhandle from poor schmucks whom they will soon rip off anyway.

American politicians may differ on personal and ethical matters such as school prayer, gay marriage and abortion, but on all the major, lucrative issues affecting the military industrial complex or big business, they are remarkably uniform. Our senators and congressmen also behave like trained seals when it comes to Israel. Witness the 29 standing ovations a packed House gave Netanyahu recently. Whether Democrat or Republican, each was terrified to be caught sitting as his colleagues jumped up and barked.

Your rep sure knows who his daddy is, and it ain’t you, sucker! The primary job of the American politician, from Obama on down, is to spin and disguise an endless series of corporate and military crimes he’s enabling. Which brings us to the Pentagon. No other governmental organ is more gluttonously corrupt. The Pentagon’s main function is not defending America but to bleed this country dry to enrich Halliburton, Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and the rest. Over and over again, the Pentagon has put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way, just so its masters can make a handsome profit. To feed these insatiable ogres, the Pentagon is willing to destroy American itself, and it is doing so, right now.

Beside bloody business as usual, billions of dollars often go missing from the Pentagon cash register without any explanation whatsoever, and in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that $2.3 trillion had disappeared, which he blamed on sloppy accounting. So it’s not thievery or corruption, but merely inept arithmetic. Tamping down this scandal, the mainstream media seemed to agree.

But perhaps we do have a math problem. We are a people who clip 25 cent coupons, drive (an SUV) a mile to save a buck, register with subtle satisfaction the missing penny from a $19.99 price tag, yet these stolen trillions leave us unfazed. One reason for this, I think, is that American corruption is not experienced directly, face to face, as it is in many other countries. Most Americans have never been browbeaten and shaken down by a corrupt cop, clerk or judge, so we can pretend that corruption doesn’t hurt us. Washington has also been waging wars without raising taxes, so it’s no skin off my back, many Americans are thinking, but our bellicose policy overseas is certainly bankrupting the homeland, even as it increases our insecurity in future blowbacks. The constant hike in our money supply, devaluing our dollars, is also a form of hidden taxation.

Another reason for our passivity in the face of widespread corruption is the state of our media, which routinely hype trivial stories while suppressing much greater outrages. Thus, the money John Edwards spent on his mistress, a million dollars provided by two private donors, was discussed for a week by television and newspaper “pundits,” but no one is concerned about the $1.5 million of tax money wasted each time Washington fires a Tomahawk missile at Libya. How many thousands have been launched so far in this three-month war? No one knows, and no one seems to care about the real flesh and bones on the receiving end of those weapons. “Bad guys” deserve to die, and so do “collateral damages.” Even as they mug us, our masters speak to us as if we’re morons. As they gobble up the entire world and everyone’s future, we get to nibble on catch phrases and slogans

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Americans have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a home run, a Lady Gaga’s burp and the promise of hope and change comes election time, but when that fat, familiar hand reaches into our wallet, yet again, we feel nothing. We’re cool and blasé until it’s our turn to receive the pink slip, be evicted, then having to curl up in our car or on cardboard.

Interviewed by Stud Terkels, retired congressman C. Wright Patman said in 1970, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

I’m not sure that we have more knowledge, but with a presidency that can wage wars without congress or popular approval, and that can imprison or kill any American citizen without due process, a dictatorship is certainly here. Ditto, that Depression.

In a productive economy, corruption is less glaring because there are so many legitimate ways to enrich oneself, but in an increasingly non-productive one, such as what we have now, corruption becomes the primary means to riches. As we starve and kill each other, the mega corporations and their servants, our politicians, will continue to fatten themselves through their access to power.

In a ghetto with no stores, only drug corners, any bling-bling dude steering a loud Hummer is viewed suspiciously (or with admiration), so in this nation of fewer and fewer factories, save those that make bombs, tanks and high-grade weapons, who are our biggest death pushers and pimps, and what should we do about them?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, & Human Wisdom

What do a tiger, a buffalo, and a farmer have to do with being Vietnamese?  Read on and find out!

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Viet Nguyen, editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS, had earlier criticized what it means to (not) be Vietnamese, and challenged the notion of authencity.  He mentioned some markers that people use to determine Vietnameseness: phở, fish sauce, Khánh Ly, etc.  The list can certainly go on so where does one draw the line?  What does being Vietnamese include?

Viet was also right in asserting that these are the wrong questions to ask because ethnic identity is amorphous, changing from individual to individual. Anyone can claim any identity, whether others believe it or not.   What we should be asking instead are the “Why” of being Vietnamese.

Why do Vietnamese people do/believe in the things they do?  These questions are more exploratory and will often lead to a better understanding of the Vietnamese identity because they attempt to look at Vietnamese people from the inside out, rather than outside in.

When we ask these questions, though, we inevitably run into Truyện Cổ Tích.  Truyện Cổ Tích are the folklore, legends, and tales of Việt Nam that reveal and explain our mores and day to day lives, like the one about the origin of the Vietnamese people.  Truyện cổ tích  literally means ‘old collected stories’ and some of the stories we tell today will, in the future, be old and explain again why it is that Vietnamese do the things they do now.

Until that time, we hope you will enjoy this feature where we will present English-translated truyện cổ tích so you can catch a glimpse of why it is Vietnamese.

Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, and the Wisdom of Human

This original piece by Julie is available for your non-commercial creative use.

Long long ago before any can remember, when animals and humans still talked with one another, there sat a bird in a tree watching a farmer struggle to lead his water buffalo with ropes tied to its horns.  Bemused, the bird said aloud to itself, “I wonder why the rope is tied to the horns?  Why not lead the buffalo by the nose-nose-nose?”  The farmer understood the wisdom in these words so he pierced the buffalo’s nostrils and from that day on, led the buffalo by its nose.

Meanwhile, a tiger was sitting in the cool shade at the edge of a pond, admiring its golden coat of fur. This was part of its daily ritual for the tiger was quite proud of its spotless appearance and thought itself not only the most beautiful creature but also the strongest.  By now, it was nearly noon and the tiger was hungry. It came upon the farm hoping for an easy meal but stopped at the spectacle of the hard-working duo of farmer and buffalo streaming with sweat as they pulled a heavy plow through the mud.

His curiosity tinged with greed but as is the nature of cats, he couldn’t help but say first, “It’s so strange Buffalo…you toil for this puny human and let him lead you by the nose, but you are so much bigger and stronger! Why do you listen to him?”

The water buffalo was undisturbed.

“He may be small, Tiger, but he has wisdom,” said the buffalo, flicking his tail in the direction of the farmer.  “Ask him and he will show it to you.”

Wasting no time, the tiger approached the farmer, whose face darkened at the sight of sharp fangs and long claws. Tiger said to the farmer, “Buffalo tells me that you have something called wisdom that makes even a great creature as he obey you, will you show it to me?”

“I’ll…I’ll have to g…go and fetch it,” the farmer said, trembling.  “But I don’t dare leave seeing how hungrily you eye my buffalo.  If you allow me to restrain you…say…tie you to that tree over there, I’ll gladly go and get my wisdom to show you.”

Tiger hastily agreed, for he so wanted to see this thing called wisdom and the hunger was becoming quite unbearable.  The farmer proceeded to tie the tiger to the tree with several spans of rope and ran off.  When he returned, he carried with him only a torch, the fear on his face had disappeared.

“You call that wisdom?” the tiger demanded.  “What nonsense!  Now untie me so I can get my meal.”

Tiger bared his fangs, as if to make the point clear, but the farmer said nothing and lit the tree on fire before leading his buffalo away.

The tiger howled and flailed wildly but the ropes held fast.  The flames bit deep, the rope charred.  Finally, Tiger managed to free himself and ran back into the dark of the jungle.  It was a long time before he would emerge again and what a sight he was!  Great black stripes now marred his golden body, burned into his fur by that thing called wisdom.

Buffalo saw the tiger and laughed.  He laughed so hard that he fell over and broke his front teeth on a rock.  Thereafter and always, water buffaloes have no front teeth and tigers stay deep within the jungle, not wanting others to see their shameful black stripes.

Read versions of this story in Vietnamese at Vietfun, at e-cadao.
Listen to it in Vietnamese at nhaccuatui.

by Bảo Nguyễn and Julie Nguyễn.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you heard this story before?  What memories does hearing this story bring up?  What do you think it says about the Vietnamese people?

Drifting Towards 25 Hawkins Road: Sonny Le’s Story of Escape

diaCRITICS will periodically post blogs from other places. This reposted review is by guest blogger Sonny Le,  and recent diaCRITICS subscriber drive winner, from his blog 25 Hawkins Road. Here, Sonny opens up to talk about his escape from Viet Nam and the beginning of his journey towards the United States.

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Escape from Viet Nam

My life in America began on a frigid Thanksgiving’s eve 29 years ago. Not unlike tens of thousands of Vietnamese escaping Viet Nam at the time, my journey to America began on May 12, 1980, and ended in Oakland, California, on November 24, 1981.

It was a 19-month journey to hell and back and through two refugee camps – 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore, and Pulau Galang II, Indonesia. It also put me in touch with my Chinese half, taught me the ethics of hard work and how to live off the kindness and compassion of strangers, and completely turned me off from sleeping outdoors for fun and pleasure.(A former refugee resident of Singapore, Lam-Khanh Nguyen, who has resettled in Germany, has created a wonderful Facebook site dedicated to 25 Hawkins Road.)

The victorious North Viet Nam may have won the war and reunified the country, but governing the former two estranged halves proved to be above and beyond the skills and experience of former soldiers and generals. By 1980, Viet Nam was crippled by the US-led economic blockade and boycott, the 1978’s epic floods, failing in its effort to integrate the former North and South Viet Nam into one country and post-war reconstruction, all the while fighting two wars – one in the north against the Chinese border incursion and one in the south against the Khmer Rouge rampaging massacres along the border.

In the mean time, political persecution and purges against those associated with the old regime, combined with a campaign to wipe out capitalism by shutting down ethnic Chinese-owned businesses, the backbone of Viet Nam’s economy, had left southern Vietnamese living in fear, paranoia and on the verge of starvation. People were whispering among themselves that “if street lamps had legs, they would have tried to escape as well.”

All kinds of boats, from canoes with outboard motors to coastal fishing boats, from river-going passenger boats to cargo haulers, were used in the desperate attempts to escape Viet Nam by sea. Others chose to cross into Thailand on foot, hacking their ways through the jungles of Cambodia, often fell victim to the Khmer Rouge en route.

Photo taken from the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which operated the refugee camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

The sea routes were not much better. The majority, if not all, of those who were escaping by sea had no idea where we were headed. The boats were not sea-worthy. There was neither the fuel nor expertise and experience to get us to the other side of the South China Sea. We just aimed for the open water. It was a mad dash for survival.
Thai, Filipino and Malaysian pirates preyed upon us like a pride of lions stalking an injured gazelle on the African savannah. If not fallen into the hands of the pirates, the mighty but deadly Pacific would swallow us whole with waves as tall as ten-story buildings. Others would die from dehydration and starvation adrift at sea days on end. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 4, and possibly higher, escapees never made it.

Going Through Hell Seeking Life

My voyage began in early May, 1980, in the small Mekong Delta town of Tan Chau, a stone-throw away from the Cambodian border. My father, his two younger brothers, and some business associates had been running a people-smuggling ring, selling passage to those who wanted to escape Viet Nam.

Since the exodus was in full swing, both the United Nations and Viet Nam’s Southeast Asian neighbors protested with Viet Nam, demanding that it must stop the waves of boat people that had begun to overwhelm their capacity to house the arriving stateless refugees. In response, Viet Nam banned all fishing boats from going out to sea and impounded the remaining ones that could be used to smuggle people. If it had not been for the corrupt and disorganized new government, hundreds of thousands would not have been able to escape.

My father and his associates had modified river cargo carriers, masqueraded as long-distance passenger boats, hundreds of miles away from outlets to the South China Sea to escape the authority’s watchful eye. Three boats were used in the operation. One had left in 1978. Next up was the boat I was on, and another was planned for 1982.

My boat looked somewhat like this one, perhaps smaller.

 The boat had been plying its supposed passenger route for months. Late January, 1980, my father sent for me. I was 16, turning 17, approaching drafting age. The stealth operation was known to only a few, so I was oblivious, assuming that he simply wanted me to join him, working on the boat as a helping hand with my two cousins who were about the same age and two other teenagers, one of whom was a gifted marine engine mechanic.

During dinner one evening, my father brought out beer and handed each of us a can to toast. The meal ended with a cigarette break where I was also invited to join in. It was a shocking, but a pleasant surprise because until that night I was never allowed to drink and smoke with my dad and uncles, at least not in front of them.

That evening, the first event of many more to come that changed my life forever, my father and I had our first father-son adult conversation on the boat deck. He gave me my life manual with a few parting homilies thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, no sleep was to be had the rest of the night. Because of the secretive nature of the operation, there was no goodbyes for my mother, my younger brother, and two sisters, whom I had not seen for almost five months and not again twelve years later.

The most devasting news of all was that I would be escaping Viet Nam alone. My father promised that the rest of our family would go later on the 1982 boat, which ended in failure.

We left Tan Chau on Monday, May 12, plying our usual route that would take us past a major outlet to the South China Sea. To escape detection, the scheduled stops were meticulously planned where small groups of passengers would be embarking and disembarking.

Three days later, the last group of passengers came aboard in a small coastal town of Binh Thoi, about an hour away from the open water of the South China Sea. Three hundred and four people had cramped into a boat about 20 feet by 70 feet, three deep. More than standing out like a sore thumb, raising suspicion among the locals, was the overwhelming number of Chinese-Vietnamese passengers and families that seemed to carry no luggage.

All along the route at each stop, there were so many tell-tale signs that this boat could not have been anything else but a boat about to escape. However, silence had been bought with the local police and authorities and the coastal marine police along the route.

We left Binh Thoi around 10 pm, timed to coincide with the receding tide and a moonless night. When we arrived at the opening to the sea, instead of crossing the channel and up another river to the final destination of Bien Hoa, another 5 hours away, we aimed for the sea full throttle, all lights off.

With the exception of the crew, of which I was a member, the passengers were told to stay down close to the floor and be quiet. Though there had been many trial runs in the river waterways, nobody knew how the engine or the boat would perform in open water at full capacity and maximum speed. The oversized engine sounded as if it was tearing the boat apart; the nuts and bolts seemed to have been rattled loose.

Soon we were sighted by a coastal patrol boat, which gave chase and ordered us to stop over the roaring engine. Shots were fired, hitting the top cabin. The ensuing chaos in pitch black condition outside and with no lighted markers, our boat ran into and became entangled with fishing nets planted in the open channel; cables strung between wooden poles to hold the nets down ripped the steering house off of the boat, injuring a few, including the skipper and almost pulling those of us inside with it.

We ran over some of the poles. Smaller boats would have been broken up and sunk. Not knowing if the coastal police were still chasing us, we kept on going at full speed until morning. Without charts and a proper working compass, we had no idea where we were in the vast open ocean.

Surveying the damage the next morning, we discovered that the hull, which stored fresh drinking water had been cracked, rendering the water undrinkable. Furthermore, the damage to the engine, which was pushed beyond its limits the night before, was beyond repair.

As a son of one of the owners, I was made aware of the situation, but the majority of the 304 people on board were not aware of our impending doom. Furthermore, sea sickness had immobilized most of the passengers. Unable to get up and move, most relieved themselves in-situ.

By the end of our first full day at sea, the sense of hopelessness had begun to set in, partly due to the lack of drinking water and food, with which we could have cooked rice. We soon settled in for our first night in the open water. Being that far out with no land in sight, our boat was like a grain of sand on a beach. The water, with its deep clear blue color, reflected off the lights from our boat, was sparkling and shimmering. When a coin was dropped overboard, its descent was visible for a long time.

By the second day, some had either recovered or gotten used to the motion of the sea, but most had already become lifeless. Making matters worse, the shear humanity – 304 unwashed individuals confined to a space the size of a Boeing 737 – combining with the baking sun, which had heated up the cabin to an intolerable condition. The few hundred pounds of jicama, a root vegetable that is mostly water, which had been on board as part of the charade-cargo, the only source of drinking water, were now being rationed with children and the elderly having priority.

Though the sea was quite calm, the rolling, undulating waves could have destroyed the boat in an instance if the weather had turned for the worse.

The vast empty ocean with no sights of land and ships, which we had been told there would be numerous about now, began to wreack havoc on our mental state. Furthermore, a few of us spotted what looked like bodies and boat debris, floating in the water. We surmised they probably belonged to the unlucky boat or boats that had run into a storm few days prior. We did not want to think about the unthinkable. Maintaining calm and optimism, however, had become an impossible task.

Things began to unravel the second night. People could be heard crying and wailing in the dark corners of the boat. Small children began to suffer – diarrhea and vomiting – crying uncontrollably.

The third day seemed to have spelled the end. The stench from the vomit and human waste had become unbearable. More and more adults now demanded water or slices of jicama. Gold bars and hundred-US-dollar bills seemed to spill out from everywhere; unfortunately they could not quench our thirst or stave off our hunger, nor could they guarantee our safe passage. Death seemed inevitable.

The first casualty occurred when a two-year-old boy stopped moving, unable to be woken up from his sleep. His mother became distraught and began to wail. The child’s father, though not crying, became crazed. Sometime later in the afternoon, he made his way to the top deck and jumped into the ocean. We were now down to 302 lifeless bodies nearing the gates of hell.

We stumbled upon a busy shipping lane on the third night, which we later learned was the main sea route between Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, We began to see very large ships passing by. We screamed. We banged on pots and pans. We flashed our lights. None stopped. Each passing ship caused panic because our tiny boat nearly capsized in its wake.

A large pot that was used for cooking rice was brought onto the top deck. We started burning the rags off of our bodies and anything we could find in the hopes of attracting attention from the passing ships.

Sometime after midnight, a night that had our hopes dashed again and again with each passing ship, suddenly a hulking ship stopped and appeared to go in reverse towards our boat. All those who still had voice began to scream more loudly. More people took off their shirts and pants and threw them into the rice cooker to stoke up the fire again.

The ship stopped. We kept on screaming and burning more of our clothes. We did not know what was going. It may not have been very long, but it seemed to have lasted an eternity. The ship began to move closer to our boat, which nearly rolled over in its wake.

Blinding floodlights were shone on our boat and a ladder was dropped down. We began to cry with happiness, knowing that we had just escaped death. It took another 3 hours before all 302 of us tired, hungry, sea-sickened, lifeless Vietnamese to come onboard what turned out to be an oil tanker named George F Getty II. The sea unworthy boat that had miraculously carried us across the South China Sea was filled up with water and sunk.

About to be rescued by the US Navy. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.

By morning most of us were huddled together in an open area on the top deck of the tanker. Some were able to get washed and a few even managed to learn about who our saviors were. It was an oil tanker en route to Hong Kong. She was Liberian-registered with an Italian captain and a Filipino crew. She belonged to the Getty Oil company of California.

I had my first Italian meal of spaghetti and meatballs on May 18, 1980, aboard the George F Getty II, somewhere on the South China Sea.

Before we settled in for another night on the behemoth oil tanker, a familiar Vietnamese voice came on the loudspeaker announcing the good news that the ship had turned around, heading back to Singapore, but the somewhat bad news was that we weren’t sure if the island-state would allow us to come ashore and grant us temporary housing while waiting for resettlement in a third country.

Amidst cry of joy and silent sobbing, though still not quite comprehending what it all meant, we all knew that our ordeal, for the time being, had ended. We now had been fed, washed, and no longer adrift on the South China Sea, but the uncertainty was palpable because we still had no idea where our home would eventually be.

25 Hawkins Road

We arrived in Singapore on the night of May 19, 1980, anchoring among hundreds of ships and oil tankers in the busy Port of Singapore. Gleaming highrises could be seen in the distance. A truly modern world most of us had never seen coming from war-ravaged Viet Nam.

As night fell, this island-state lit up like a sparkling jewel, surrounded by twinkling lights that were the ships in the harbor. It was like the Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, a DNA-altering experience for someone who came from a country where old combustible-engine automobiles had been converted to run on coal and city and street lamps had become a dreamy distant past.

As day light broke, allowing us to see an even more amazing Singapore’s cityscape, the good news came over the loudspeaker that we would be coming ashore sometime before lunch. More crying of joy broke out. Amidst smiles we also learned that somehow one of us had gone missing, may have fallen off the ship. We were now down to 301, from the original 304 leaving Viet Nam.

One by one we boarded ferry boats that took us into Singapore harbor, then each was given a bag lunch of sandwich, soft drink and an apple.

From boarding the ferry to waiting in the harbor to boarding the busses that eventually took us to 25 Hawkins Road, Sembawang, in the northern suburbs of Singapore, we were all in a daze, marveling at everything we saw. How clean. How modern. How orderly everything was. And to top it all off, almost everyone around us was Chinese with whom some of us were able to communicate. It was a revelation.

Your truly, at 16, taken 2 or 3 days after arriving at 25 Hawkins Road, still with the shirt, on my shoulder, that I left Viet Nam with.

We arrived at 25 Hawkins Road about an hour or so later. It was quite a sight to see hundred of Vietnamese lining the road welcoming our arrival. At this point boat people rescued from 2 to 4 boats were brought into the camp every day, averaging anywhere between 40 and 500 people. Our group was among the largest rescued from a single boat. It was May 20, 1980.

Sonny Le: A news junkie since the age of five – thanks to my father and the BBC and Voice of America shortwave radio – born and raised in the Mekong Delta of Viet Nam, but home has been Oakland, California, after a stop at 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore Refugee Camp. A communications strategist with over twenty years of experience, started out with half-tone and carbon copy that actually left stains, then moved on to fax and e-mail and now happily embracing microblogging.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What did you think of Sonny’s personal narratives? What are the other stories of escaping Viet Nam do you know?

Petits Viet Nams: CAFI, A Look at a Little Viet Nam in France

While there are many Vietnamese in France at the present, the past of how some of those Vietnamese – especially those who were Eurasians – arrived and were received in France is something not generally known. In this piece on CAFI, diaCRITICS guest correspondent Ly Lan Dill sheds light on this part of Vietnamese and French history: the camps for Indochinese refugees in France. 

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Bà Crenn passed away last week at 99 years old. She was not an artist, nor a writer, not a leader, nor a philosopher. She was a mother, a grandmother, the personification of đảm đang that kept a family together, and the doyenne of the CAFI.

Bà Merlet, Bà Le Crenn, and Brigitte (left to right).Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

At the end of the French Indochinese war, the French government took it upon themselves to repatriate all French children for fear that the victorious Việt Minh would exact revenge on them. Their status was defined as having been recognized by a French parent or proving French kinship. Thousands of mixed blood children and their Vietnamese parent, most often their mothers, sailed away from the only home they knew with the promise of a better life in France. For most, the French fathers had either been killed in combat or had returned to France, forgetting their “petite Tonkinoise”. These children are testimonies to the breadth of the former French colonial Empire, their ancestry tracing back to the military troupes of Africa and North Africa, to the Indian merchants of Pondicherry and the Indian Ocean, by way of the “white” Frenchmen from the métropole.

French military troupes installed this population onto steamer boats headed towards Marseille from where they were then sent to various temporary camps, run by former military personnel who had served in Indochina, while the French government tried to find a solution.

One of these temporary barracks was the CAFI, the Centre d’Acceuil des Français d’Indochine (The Welcome Center for the French of Indochina). Brought to the bleak, muddy barracks on a cold winter day in 1956, these women and children, who for the most part did not speak French, refused to believe that this was the promised land of their missing husbands and fathers.

A quiet afternoon in the CAFI. Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

France, in the aftermath of the Indochinese war and the beginning of the Algerian war, forgot these camps, and what was supposed to be a temporary solution endured for over 50 years. All able-bodied, skilled individuals were encouraged to leave the camp as quickly as possible to integrate into French society, leaving only the very old, the very young, and those entirely inapt to fend for themselves. The inadequate temporary housing and meager Social Security benefits for large families were all the inhabitants of the camp had to survive on during those early years. These Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers, despite their lack of schooling, their lack of French, their lack of skills other than agricultural know-how, struggled to raise their children, send them to school, and ensure that they succeed in the outside world. Their efforts turned a temporary welcome center into home and putting down roots for their children who had nothing more than fleeting images of a lost land, their mother, and the camp to forge their own identity.

Dominique Rolland, ethnologist at the Institut de Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris and of Vietnamese descent herself, wrote a poignant book on those who left the camp and those who have stayed. Petits Viet-Nams – Histoires des camps de raptriés français d’Indochine (Little Viet Nams – Stories From Camps for Repatriated Indochinese French; Paris: Elytis, 2009) is not a scholarly history of the camp. It is a personal, emotionally charged account of the weekend of August 15, 2009 at the camp. This French holiday (the feast day of the Assumption of Mary) is traditionally the moment where former camp inhabitants and current inhabitants reunite, where young and old meet up and life at the camp is once again a joyous crowd of hungry children, teenagers flirting under the lone tree, parents tending to the elderly, and the elderly themselves reminiscing on how difficult it had all once been. These fleeting impressions, anecdotes, and snatches of life stories revealed over a meal are carefully transcribed as Dominique Rolland fulfills her mission to ensure that what these women endured had not been in vain, that their sufferings, ignored and forgotten by all, not be forgotten by future generations.

Portrait of Bà Le Crenn. Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

Bà Le Crenn, the doyenne of the group in 2009, feared the demolition of the camp more than she feared death. The French authorities had finally remembered the camp after 50 years and decided to demolish the sub-standard housing and relocate the inhabitants into new public housing. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, this could have been possible. But now at 97 years old, they have to let her finish her days here.” The devout Buddhist had already planned her cremation and funeral urn; all that was missing was her portrait. When Dominique Rolland and her photographer requested a picture of Bà Le Crenn for the book, the latter agreed but only in exchange for a proper picture for her burial stone. An ageless photo of her with her prayer beads can be seen in Dominique Rolland’s Facebook album dedicated to CAFI 2009.

Other events concerning the CAFI:

Final days for Charlotte Nguyen’s photo exhibition at the Fontaine Obscure in Aix-en-Provence.

The last of the three radio shows France Culture dedicated to the CAFI, including Bà Le Crenn and Dominique Rolland.

 Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Were you aware of Vietnamese Indochinese refugees and their situations? What do you think of the Vietnamese community in France? How is their situation different or similar to that of Vietnamese Americans? What other Vietnamese, refugee histories may be undocumented and not generally known?

Bearing the Weight of History – the Story of a Young Chăm Woman in America

At diaCRITICS, we center a cross-ethnic and transnational approach, as fifty-four ethnicities live within present-day Vietnam and as the Vietnamese diaspora has resettled on five continents. Yet the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, and their communities abroad, are often forgotten. By featuring those in the Vietnamese diaspora whose identities and histories are less well known, we highlight the importance of de-centering Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) assumptions about what is “Vietnamese.” Here’s an in-depth, courageous, and self-reflexive discussion about Chăm culture and history, centering a Vietnamese Muslim Chăm woman. This was originally published by the Cultural Quest Foundation and reprinted with permission.

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“I am a Chăm” 

We met a young woman in San Jose, California, who wore a scarf over her head, which identified her as a person of Islamic faith. But she spoke perfect Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Muslim – Wow – what a rare site! We asked her more questions and were curious about her background. “I am a Chăm,” she said, looking keenly at us for our response. She wasn’t sure if we knew what a Chăm is. 

Viet’s Twin Civilization

Probably all Vietnamese with basic formal education in Vietnam would know about “người Chăm,” the native people of Central Vietnam. The Chăm people were said to have a glorious culture built on Hindu and Islamic faiths. Tháp Chăm (Chăm temple ruins) are famous historical relics, the largest of which at Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chăms were brave sea-faring people. They traded with cultures all over Southeast Asia. Their language belongs to the great language family of Malayo-Polynesian, whose origin stretched from East-African Madagascar to the Pacific Islands.

In terms of cultural development, the Việts and the Chăms started out on a parallel course that mirrored each other like hands of the same person. Coming out of the stone age, the Chăms developed a sophisticated iron-based technology, called the Sa Huỳnh culture, while the Việts in north cultivated the bronze-based Đồng Sơn culture. The Chăms were a sea-faring people while the Việts, coming from the Austro-Asiatic language family (cousin to Khmer language), thrived on agriculture. The Việts imported Han-Chinese intellectualism for their societal development, while the Chăm society was built on Hindu intellectualism. The Việt’s family was patriarchal and male-centered, favored by labor-intensive agriculture, while the Chăm’s family—with the women being the community’s pillars and the men spending long months at sea—was matrilineal and women-centered.

Even the Việt’s myth of creation holds vague references to the Chăms as well. The myth talked about the angel Princess marrying a dragon Prince to create the first one hundred children who became the peoples of Southeast Asia. The angel princess, whose name was Âu Cơ, was the descendant of Thần Nông (the God of Agriculture) who supposedly lived somewhere in the Yangtze River region. The Dragon Prince, whose name was Lạc Long Quân, came from the sea. After the children were born, the couple split up, with half going with their mother back to the inland region and other half followed their father to live by the sea. The myth said that modern Việts came from the stock that went with mother Âu Cơ. That explained the Việt proclivity toward agriculture. But what modern people came from the group that lived with father Lạc Long Quân? Who else but the sea-faring Chăms, of course!

Brothers no more

Hardly anyone outside of Southeast Asia knows about the Chăms today, because the Việts had wiped their nation, Champa (“Chiêm Thành” in Vietnamese) off the world’s map since the fourteenth century. There is a deep conflict within the Vietnamese cultural consciousness about what they had done to the Chăms. On one hand, they railed against the Chinese for trying to take over their homeland, originally in the Red River delta in today North Vietnam. On other hand, they did the very same thing to the Chăm by taking away the Chăm way of life and country.

This conflict is especially strong among the South Vietnamese who lost their country to North Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese refugees often say among themselves that the brutal Vietnam War and the subsequent loss of South Vietnam is a karmic retribution for their ancestor’s unjust actions. It was also ironic that the Việts’ new home, America, the land of dream and opportunity, was also built upon a bloody legacy at the expense of the native peoples. Human civilization seems to be full of savagery, and the Việts contributed their own dark chapter in their relations with the Chăms. 

“Don’t call me Chàm”

Our first meeting with Vân Anh did not get off so great. Off the bat, Vân-Anh, she politely stopped us from calling her “Chàm,” a sound with a falling tone. “We are Chăm” she said. “Chàm is derogatory to us.” Chăm sounds a bit like ‘chum.’ For those thinking that fussing over a tiny diacritical mark is bordering on insanity, we want to remind them that in the tonal Vietnamese language tone is everything. “Má” (rising tone) means mother, but “Ma” (flat tone) means a ghost. “Tướng Không Quân” means an Air Force general, but “Tướng Không Quần” means a general without pants. Getting the wrong tone can get you into a lot of trouble.

That was how we got into trouble with Vân-Anh for calling her a “Chàm”. Honesty, we never heard of the word “Chăm” before. All historical texts we learned used the word “Chàm.” We were a bit irked by Vân-Anh’s demand for different term. We never meant any disrespect and didn’t like someone telling us to stop using a historically honored word. But when we checked the internet on the proper term to call the Chăm people, sure enough, “Chăm” was indeed the term that Chăm people call themselves. The early score: Vân-Anh 1, CQF 0.

Opening a big can of worms

The discovery of a thriving Chăm community on the internet pleased us. We were taught that the Chăm culture had been totally destroyed. So we organized a talk on January 9th, 2011, for Vân-Anh to tell us more about her family and culture. We didn’t have a great turn out, as many of our Việt friends admittedly were uncomfortable with the cross-cultural discussion that we attempted. “You are opening a very big can of worms,” professor Trương Bổn Tài, a supporter of Chăm culture, reminded the group.

Honestly, most Việts don’t want to talk about this issue. “Why stir up the past?” one friend said. But Vân Anh reminded us that the legacy of maltreatment of the Chăms is not of the past but the present. Even today, some Vietnamese still refer to the Chăms as “mọi” (savages), cow and pig worshipers, and cast them as an inferior race.

Other Việt friends are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking ill of our own forbearers. In the Confucian tradition, doing such thing amounts to being ungrateful if not a sin. But the fact of the matter is Vân-Anh is a Việt, Chăm culture is a part of Việts’ greater cultural landscape, and most if not all South Vietnamese have some trace of Chăm ancestry in their blood due to generations of intermarriages. So it is only right and necessary to hear what Vân-Anh has to say and what her Chăm community has experienced. Furthermore, as children of the same Mother Earth, we all have the power and the responsibility to ease any the historical burden and make it better for the future generations, just by understanding. So with this intent, talking about the difficult past legacy may turn out to be of much greater service for our ancestors than looking the other way.

Another worry we had was that the heavy historical topic would result in more bad feelings. Good intentions often beget disasters. Even Vân-Anh was nervous and she insisted on a low-key invitation-only crowd. Academic discussions on Chăm-Việt relations in the past have been known to end up in fiery debates or cold resentments. At the outset, we looked naive for doing this program. If scholars could not enlighten Chăm-Việt relation, how could a group of rag-tag non-experts like us do any good to a far-gone tragedy?

But we weren’t interested in scholarly truth. We were interested in Vân Anh’s personal truth. A part of our motivation to form Cultural Quest Foundation comes from the belief that every person holds an important truth about his or her own culture and history, worthy to be told and shared. The most valuable source of history is the eyewitnesses, not the books. We become truly ignorant of our history when we don’t listen to our elders and neighbors, not when we don’t get enough history units. So when Vân-Anh accepted our invite to tell her story, we were delighted to give her the center stage and used scholarly information only as backdrops. That was exactly what we did and we weren’t disappointed. At the end of the program, all attendees felt satisfied, hopeful and appreciative of her sharing.

14th century map of Đại Việt (Vietnam) and Champa

Strategic Cultural Misunderstanding

The golden age of Champa took place in the early centuries of the modern era along side with the rise of other great Hinduist worshiping centers such as Angkor in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The Chăm temples were adorn with curvaceous Apsara dancers conjuring a time of elegance, grace and transcendence. Important Chăm cities and towns were named after Hindu Gods, such as Indrapura (Đà Nẵng) and Vijaya (Quy Nhơn), as professor Arti Nigam, an Indian psychologist, pointed out during the forum.

The Khmer and Chăm Hindus had one of history’s most interesting love-hate relationships. While the Chăms worshiped God Shiva, the Khmer honored God Vishnu. Like a classic sibling rivalry, they fought each other like enemies and then helped each other like best friends. After the Việt invasion in the fourteenth century, Chăm Hinduism declined and gave way to Islamic intellectualism. Some Chăms became Buddhists much like the Khmer. Chăm society became culturally fragmented, by which some people hung on to the Hindu faith, while others followed the newer Islamic trend.

The most famous story between the Chăm and Việt during this time was that of Princess Huyền Trân, the daughter of Viet King Trần Anh Tông. After decades of conflict, King Trần Anh Tông and the Chăm King Chế Mân signed a historic land-for-peace deal. In this agreement, the Chăms would cede to the Việts two provinces and the Chăm King would marry the beautiful Việt Princess, thus joining two kingdoms into one family.

But the Việts did not keep their side of the deal. After King Chế Mân died, the Việt king ordered an attack on the Chăms to retrieve his daughter, because he feared that Princess Huyền Trân would be burned alive in the Chăm king’s funeral pyre as dictated by Chăm custom. That attack turned out to be the first shot in the Việt campaign of Nam Tiến (southward expansion) that eventually annexed all of Champa and part of Khmer Kingdom into Vietnam’s territory.

The story of Princess Huyền Trân captured Việt imagination for the ages. It has a dramatic cast of characters including a powerful Việt king also a loving father, a courageous and lovely princess, and a barbaric enemy who would sacrifice an innocent woman, not to mention the man who would lead the Princess’s rescue was rumored to be her own former lover.

But unbeknown to most Việts today, there is another side to this story. Apparently, Princess Huyền Trân was never in any danger of being sacrificed. According to Chăm custom of the time, only the Queen could choose to sacrifice herself in order to empower the throne for her descendants. To do so, she would have needed approval from a ruling council, in case she was needed to rule the country. Sacrifice one’s life for a greater cause was nothing new nor undesirable in either Việt or Chăm culture at the time. It was the queen’s choice to sacrifice herself. But Princess Huyền Trân was not the queen, but the King’s concubine, albeit an important one. There was no way she could die from Chăm custom.

Cultural Survival at Stake

The West never got to know Champa, except for what little Marco Polo had wrote about this fabled kingdom during his brief visit to the Chăm seaport Singapura (Hội An). By the time Western countries arrived in large numbers in the latter centuries, Champa was already relegated to archeological and historical curiosities. French colonization that stopped Việt expansionism came too late for the Chăms, as it could only help to save the Khmer kingdom instead. As the Việts pushed southward, the once seafaring Chăm people moved farther south and then into Cambodia with the largest number living in a land-locked community called Kampong Cham.

Once both Hindus, the Khmer (now Buddhists) and the Chăms (now Muslims) lived peacefully side by side, guided by each of their own gentle religion. But then the Vietnam War came and followed with the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Untold number of Chăm were killed in the seventies for the crime of being non-indigenous. Ironically this time, it was the Vietnamese communists that went into Cambodia to get rid of their fellow communists, the Khmer Rouge, and saved the whole country from total annihilation.

In the twenty-first century, the threat of physical persecution has lifted, but the struggle for cultural survival is more fierce than ever. Like all indigenous cultures, the Chăm culture faces a direct assault from the pop culture which sways young people away from traditional values. Vân Anh’s generation must deal with the difficult task of redefining what it means to be a Chăm in today’s complex globalized world.

Khmer Chăm women visit the site where large number of Chăms were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-1979)

Indifference toward being different

In central Vietnam today, small Chăm villages still remained. Vân Anh grew up in one of those villages near Phan Rang (formerly Panduranga). She spoke fluent Chăm and Vietnamese. Her community was Islamic. They prayed and worshipped Allah and carried on a proud culture, personified in traditional dances, rituals and family’s heirlooms and relics. Invisibility seemed to have been a good thing for Vân Anh, until she came to America in the post 9/11 era. Islam is viewed with deep suspicion here. Yet, she could not part from her head scarf that stands for her faith and integrity. Many people wanted her to take off her scarf, including some family members, for her own good in order to blend in with the hair-obsessed culture of America. But refusing to conform to societal norm may be an easier way for Vân Anh to cope. It may give her a tough day at work, but offers her better sleep at night.

Flanked by international visitors, Chăm villagers stand next to their makeshift mosque in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

To be able to dream is a success

It does not take much to realize that Vân Anh carries a heavy burden of history on her shoulders. Yet we never heard Vân Anh talking about violence and revenge against the Việt or anyone else. On a practical level that’s a good thing because she’s got too many identities to afford to let any of them be at war with each other. She is a Chăm, a Việt, a Muslim and an American—a quad-cultural identity. Her cultural interest is in neither Chăm nor Việt or American alone, but in how much all cultures have in common and bring richness to her spirit. Her interest in Islam is very intense.

She started a non-profit group, Moonlight Humanity, to help the poor in Southeast Asia. Given that her Chăm people in Cambodia and Vietnam live in abject poverty and in much isolation from the world, she dreams of an ambitious plan to build schools, dig wells, finance new businesses, and construct mosques and community centers. So please visit her group’s website to learn or contribute.

Starting an ambitious charitable organization at a time of global economic downturn may seem unwise, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her vision. We need to be reminded of who Vân-Anh is and where she came from. She is a Chăm, the people with a glorious history and persistent sense of survival. As a Chăm, she is still here, growing and thriving, rather than succumbing to hatred and despair. For any human being who could come out of a genocidal history and still be able to dream big, not for one but for many, that is a success—a big success.

Ultimately, as human beings, each of us are only responsible for our own dreams. The reality is often created by the collective dreams of many. There is nothing wrong with Vân Anh dreaming of a better life for her people. But her dream could only come true there if other Việts, Muslims, Americans, and people in the world also share her dream for the Chăm people to get what they’ve deserved all along—dignity, security and respect.

Cultural productions

“Why are old Vietnamese songs so sad?” a listener once asked. Many old Chăm and Việt songs tend to be very sad because they were not written for the mere entertainment value. They are more like spiritual doors onto the sacredness of life, love and relationship. Losses and heartbreaks have the power to help us appreciate life more deeply than pleasantries. These songs are like fish sauce for the soul. Salty, yes, but they’re supposed to bring out the full flavor of your own humanity. Watch our video the Shame of Đồ Bàn (Hận Đồ Bàn) – Đồ Bàn being the former Cham capital near present day Quy Nhơn. It’s a very touching song! By the way, Quy Nhơn (the modern name for Đồ Bàn) means “returning to humanity”. See if this song does that for you.

Now listen to a part of the song Hòn Vọng Phu II (the Rock of the Waiting Wife II). The song is about a Chăm-inspired Vietnamese legend that celebrated the woman’s love for her husband. She waited for her husband, who was at war for so long that the weather washed away her flesh to leave behind her internal will in a form of a rock statue. Even mountains and rivers had to change their paths to yield to her desire and persistence. This song is spliced together with Chăm language in the first part and Việt in the latter. English subtitles are included. Enjoy!

Now listen to one of Vân Anh’s favorite songs. Làng Chăm Quê Em (My Chăm Village) is a song Vân Anh knew from her childhood. It’s about two young lovers of two different socioeconomic classes and religions looking to build a life together. The song, sung both in Vietnamese and Chăm, is performed by a famous Chăm-Việt singer, Chế Linh. Performers wear authentic Chăm costumes of white garb and red ear-tassels. The setting is in Cambodia’s Angkor Thom, which was built in 10th century for Hindu worship. During that time, the Chăms were also Hindus and had vast temples similar to the Khmer. Today, Cambodia is home to the largest population of Chăm people in the world. Enjoy this video from Vân Sơn Entertainment!

— Cultural Quest Foundation, the author, was formed in California in late 2008 as a non-profit, public benefit organization. The board of organizers consists of Tâm M. Đặng, Thái P. Nguyễn, Tuấn M. Nguyễn, and Brandon H. Nguyễn.

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