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[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott's book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family's long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott's book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu's regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]
The city boomed, reaching a level of affluence that it had never known before… Life was so good for those who benefited from the money the United States was pouring in that, after the Americans went home, they would later refer to this period as the “golden age.” Imports financed by American aid continued to arrive. …Luxury goods became more widely available. …Unlike in the North, there were no acute wartime shortages and no rationing. Rice production was falling sharply as peasants fled their land, but the Americans replaced the lost supplies with imports. Besides the legal imports, we could get an incredible array of goods that were siphoned off from the bulging American warehouses and Post Exchanges (PXs) and sold on the street. …From this time onward, Saigon residents would become attached to American consumer products, clinging to their favorite brands like a marketer’s dream come true….
The newly affluent class included many who stole without qualm from the Americans. Some of the goods available on the black market had been pilfered from the U.S. military bases.… The American themselves were not immune to corruption, and some would accept bribes and turn the other way to let the Vietnamese carry out what they wanted. To the Vietnamese who got rich this way, taking from the Americans was not really wrong, first of all because they were foreigners and normal ethical principles need not be applied to them, and, second, because they had so much that they would not miss what they lost.
The upshot of billions of dollars circulating in a country the size of Texas was that people had more money to spend. Supply could not keep up with demand, and prices shot up. But although people grumbled about inflation, only those who were not benefiting financially from the war had a hard time making ends meet. The countryside and Saigon in particular became schizophrenic. At the bottom were the many peasants who were paying in lives and limbs lost, and in homes and fields destroyed by the war. At the top, life could not have been better for the corrupt officers and officials, for men and women working as clerks for the Americans, for building contractors, and for real estate owners. It was also good for those catering to the Americans’ needs, from prostitutes who could earn more than the head of a government ministry, to tailors, to cyclo and taxi drivers taking free-spending G.I.s around town on their furloughs, to the maids toiling for them. Some Vietnamese, watching greed displacing traditional values, complained that the American presence had turned society upside-down. In the old days, the social order was expressed in the saying “scholars first, peasants second, artisans third, and merchants fourth.” But now, according to these disillusioned traditionalists, this saying should be changed to “prostitutes first, cyclo drivers second, taxi drivers third, and maids fourth.” …This social upheaval finally turned some of these educated Vietnamese against the American intervention, although they knew it was keeping the communists at bay.
posted by Kevin Mînh Allen
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me
- Small Town, John Mellencamp -
American soldiers nicknamed the country of my birth ‘The Nam’. As far as the average joe was concerned, it was a country filled with VC, free fire zones, kill ratios and POW/MIAs. As far as a Vietnamese adoptee like myself was concerned, that same country became a fairytale kingdom where I could act out all my forlorn fantasies of a black-haired mother who missed her son and only wanted to welcome him back into her arms one day. However, America came to see me as the cast-off, the war orphan, the dust of life; the war trophy, the charity case, the Saigon street urchin. Before I knew it, I was given one mission and one mission only: prove my worth.
As I look back on my youth, my status as an adopted person from Vietnam was very rarely announced in public. Subtle remarks or comments about my anomalous genealogy probably floated through my ears, but the hardened perception of myself as a normal red-blooded American kid smacked away any doubts or inconvenient truths about the mismatch between me and my community. My adoptive parents were very adept at concealing reality from me (when it was convenient for them) and avoiding drawn-out discussions about my past that could have resulted in meaningful dialogue which, in turn, would have strengthened the brittle bond between us. I guess it was less taxing for them to convince themselves and me that I was simply their son and had always been a part of their family. I was stuck with them, and they to me, for better or worse. Just one more happy family in the ‘burbs.
However, my vision sharpened and I started seeing cracks in everything around me – cracks in the mirrors, cracks in the kitchen table, cracks in friends’ faces, cracks in school walls and cracks all over my body. Layers of paint and polish started sloughing off of the identity in which I had been locked. I began holding people accountable for my shitty attitude toward feeling displaced and disoriented. It felt as though I was not only confronting missing chapters in my life, but whole volumes of history that encompassed innumerable stories and facts about momentous events connecting me back to my adoption. Inexplicably, the bottom fell out and I was left with a contemptuous void, down which I kept throwing question after question. No traceable answers ever seemed to crystalize.
Today, as I orbit the core of my existence, I am coming full circle, coming back around to the beginning of one teensy little life that was born somewhere in South Vietnam in December 1973. No longer am I content, no longer am I at ease. As I take account of lost time and memories of an era that I dare not relive, and yet am inextricably drawn to, one undeniable truth no longer eludes me: It was in Vietnam where brutish violence, angelic redemption and pure indifference had blended together and created me. It’s now up to me to piece together this self-portrait. What it may reveal about myself is still anyone’s guess.
Far be it for me to tell other war-era Vietnamese adoptees what to think, but I do believe that each one of us will eventually be made to face the facts and long-term effects of that specific time period in American and Vietnamese history, as intertwined as they are in our cultural and political consciousness. As we embark on our own personal journeys of self-realization, we shall hear more and more proclamations about how we had been saved from a lifetime of deprivation and wretchedness. Especially from elders who lived through that war, we will hear how much gratitude we owe them for not abandoning us to languish in the chaos, violence and retribution meted out to those who were left behind, and how lucky we are to be alive in the greatest nation on the planet.
Yet, these platitudes work. No matter how rebellious or contrarian I wish to appear, sometimes I must admit that our benefactors’ words strike at a layer of truth, however thin it may be. For the sake of argument, let’s give the people who facilitated my departure from Vietnam their just due. I will concede that they held an on-the-ground perspective that caused them to clearly act on my behalf. Knowing what they knew, they could foresee that any delay in my removal from the perilous situation unfolding before them would result in a five-fold increase in my imminent death. To think of the odds stacked against me and the high likelihood that I could have been just another corpse for fleeing people to step over on their way to planes, helicopters and boats still weighs on my shoulders like anvils. When I contemplate just for a moment the death toll among children my age at the time and the wasteland awaiting those who survived, pangs of guilt wrack my conscience and I have to second guess my attempts at raising doubts about the institutionalized myths of the Vietnam War and our insistence that they be maintained. I have to pause and ask myself whether I would want my life any different than it is now, considering all that I’ve been given, all that has been offered me and all the years I’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate. The sense of betrayal of everything I’ve known and loved grows stronger with each step I take toward the dark unknown. The choice becomes starker between accepting the comfort and ease of just letting go or the sheer grind of pursuing enlightenment. It doesn’t seem fair that I would have to choose between these two outcomes which I know are not guaranteed.
That brings me to my younger sister. She was one of the hundreds of children flow out of Vietnam on the wings of Operation Babylift. From what I know and what I’ve experienced, my sister belongs to the majority of adult Vietnamese adoptees because she refuses to discuss her adoption or anything tangential to Vietnam. Thus, out of a sense of protectiveness I shield her from my struggle for the truth and understanding of the circumstances that caused me to be an orphan. Instead, I actually admire her resolve not to contemplate what was done to us in the name of “saving” us. She has the remarkable ability of putting disappointing ventures behind her and appreciating her accomplishments and the people she gathers around her. She lives for the here and now. In the same vein, my sister has never implied that my writing is a betrayal of our parents or the country that took us in and raised us. When I told her of my decision to return to Vietnam for a visit, she was genuinely happy for me, although she knew she probably would not contemplate such a trip.
The relationship and understanding my sister and I have developed with regard to adoption serves to remind me that adoptees of differing opinions or outlooks can remain compassionate about each other’s decisions to search or not to search, to wrestle with the past or not bother with it, to step out of our skin or remain comfortable within it.
Keep in mind, though, that these stages of coming-to-terms with our adopted selves are not static. The desire to explore our adoption stories can wax and wane according to many factors and with the passage of time. I may get to the point where I feel I’ve done enough probing and finally put down my hammer and chisel, exhausted, and yet feel all the better for it. My sister may very well come along and pick up her own hammer and chisel and start working on that sheer cliff face. Our interests and motives may intersect and we could come to the same satisfactory conclusions. Or, our viewpoints could diverge so sharply that we will never see eye to eye.
All I know, right now, is that I am not content with letting bygones be bygones. People can say that I was saved. But, I’ll be damned if I let them have the last word.